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Dean's Perspectives

How our college helps English language learners

Dean Judy Nichols MitchellBy Judy Nichols Mitchell
Dean, WSU College of Education


For the sake of children like Octavio, the College of Education is working hard.

Associate Professor Joy Egbert, head of our English as a second language (ESL) program, met Octavio after officials at a local school asked for her advice. They didn’t know what to do with this boy who spoke only Spanish. When Dr. Egbert arrived in the classroom, she was heartened to see the students gathered around a table, working on a project. At least, she thought, the teacher had figured out how to engage Octavio with his classmates. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Octavio was in an adjoining room, head down, doing nothing.

Octavio sat by himself that day, but he’s hardly alone when it comes to needing help. In Washington, 77,000 English language learners are enrolled in schools. That is 7 percent of our students. Spanish is the language most commonly spoken by these children, followed by Russian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, Korean, Somali, and Tagalog.

One obvious way that the college helps these children is through our teacher preparation programs. We offer teaching endorsements in bilingual education and English as a second language at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We were among the first colleges to require that everyone earning a teaching certificate take a course in the teaching of English language learners. We have very popular graduate degrees—M.A. and Ed.M.—that focus on ESL. At the Ph.D. level, we offer a specialization in language and literacy education.

One of the first things our students find out about English language learners is that a lot of what they think they know just isn’t true. For example, children do not learn second languages more quickly and easily than adults. Nor is “immersion” the best way for children to learn a language. How do we know that these are myths? Research tells us so.

Our own faculty ESL researchers are hard at work in Pullman, Tri-Cities and Vancouver. They include:

  • Dr. Egbert, who works both in the U.S. and abroad to explore how both teachers and students can become engaged in English language learning.
  • Assistant Professor Tom Salsbury, who studies second language acquisition. He also is working with Assistant Professor Jo Olson to perfect mathematics teaching strategies for English language learners.
  • Professor Gisela Ernst-Slavit, who has secured more than $3 million in federal funds to improve the effectiveness of teachers and administrators with English language learners
  • Assistant Professor Tonda Liggett, who is researching the transformation that takes place as pre-service teachers encounter course material on diversity and have experiences working with students who are different from themselves.

In addition, we have just welcomed two assistant professors, David Johnson and Eric Johnson, who have researched English language learning at urban schools.

Our college is committed not only to preparing new teachers, but to helping those already in the classroom. Five years ago, we started an increasingly popular on-line program through which teachers all over the state can earn an ESL endorsement.

Starting this year, our ESL and literacy faculty and students will team up with classroom teachers to analyze and improve the English language instruction being provided in selected Eastern Washington schools. That effort, called the Language and Literacy Education Collaborative, is just the kind of help that the Octavios of the world need to reach their potential.